Downing Street is drawing up a new strategy for Syria that would involve limited military strikes against the “controlling brains” of the Islamic State and a renewed diplomatic push that could see Bashar al-Assad remain president for a transitional period of six months.
In a sign of No 10’s determination to avoid another Commons defeat on Syria, ministers are arguing that military action would be narrowly defined to remove a terrorist threat with the added benefit of strengthening Iraq’s democratically elected government.
David Cameron highlighted the government’s belief that the time is fast approaching for Britain to extend its airstrikes against Isis targets from Iraq into Syria when he said “hard military force” would be necessary.
The prime minister said he would seek parliamentary approval before escalating Britain’s involvement. He told MPs: “We have to be part of the international alliance that says we need an approach in Syria which will mean we have a government that can look after its people. Assad has to go, Isil has to go. Some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but it will on occasion require hard military force.”
The government has faced intense scrutiny over its strategy in Syria after Cameron announced to MPs on Monday that an RAF Reaper drone had killed two British Isis jihadis last month. Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed on 21 August near Raqqa. Junaid Hussain, another Briton, was killed in a US airstrike on 24 August as part of a joint operation.
Downing Street said the strikes were designed to foil terror plots planned by Khan and Hussain and did not mark wider British involvement in coalition airstrikes against Isis targets in Syria, which would require parliamentary approval. Cameron said he was free to act without a vote in parliament in the event of such an emergency.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, made clear on Wednesday that the government would like to widen its involvement in the airstrikes over Syria. But the government is making clear that it has three clear goals designed to win support in a possible parliamentary vote, which will become more challenging if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader on Saturday.
The three goals are:
- Military – the defeat of Islamic State.
- Political – strengthening the Iraqi government.
- Diplomatic – helping to lead a new initiative in Syria, with the blessing of Russia and China, that would see the installation of a government of national unity. As a way of getting Assad’s two great patrons, Russia and Iran, on board, Britain and other western powers would agree to a transitional period of up to six months in which Assad would remain in office. But his security apparatus would be shut down.
Hammond repeatedly stressed to MPs on the Commons foreign affairs select committee that any planned British involvement in military action in Syria would be limited to disrupting Isis command and control in Raqqa. The aim would not be to change the balance of power in the deadlocked four-year civil war, the government’s purpose when it last asked parliament to endorse military action.
He said there was no intention for Britain to get “involved in complex three-way fights in north-west Syria where regime forces and other forces are involved. What we are looking at are Isil command and control nodes around Raqqa from which it has supply lines running north. We are unable to attack those command and control nodes and supply lines. The military logic drives us to believe there could be utility to have greater freedom.”
The foreign secretary added: “The objective is to defeat Isil and that means we have to get to the controlling brains. At the moment we are attacking an enemy in Iraq and if we formed the judgment that this air-based campaign was more efficacious if we attacked Isil in Syria, we would ask parliament.
“The logic of extending our mandate to cover Isil targets in Syria would be very clearly a logic in support of the mandate we have in Iraq for the collective defence of that country.”
On the diplomatic front, Hammond said Britain was prepared to be “pragmatic” in discussing a transitional plan lasting months for Assad’s removal. “We are not saying Assad and all his cronies have to go on day one,” he said.
The foreign secretary said there was no sign at present that either Iran or Russia was prepared to abandon Assad, but argued there was no military solution that would lead to victory either for Assad or his opponents.
He said Britain and its allies would not accept any plan that would entrench Assad’s position in power. “The international community cannot, in my view, facilitate and oversee a set of elections in which somebody guilty of crimes on the scale that Assad has committed is able to run for office. That has to be clear. He cannot be part of Syria’s future.”
Cameron faced pressure from Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, to put a figure on the number of people Britain was prepared to take from refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria. The prime minister indicated to MPs that the government was keen to accelerate the process.
On Friday the home secretary, Theresa May, and the communities secretary, Greg Clark, will chair the first meeting of a new committee to oversee the admission of refugees.
Cameron told Harman in the Commons: “It is one thing to give a commitment to a number, whether it is the 20,000 that I think is right or something else. It is another thing to make sure that we can find these people, get them here and give them a warm welcome. I hope that the whole country can now come together in making sure that we deliver this effort properly.”
The prime minister has said the government will place a particular emphasis on admitting orphaned children. But he indicated that the government would limit the number of children in two other categories.
Britain will refrain from admitting unaccompanied children from Syria’s neighbouring camps to avoid trafficking and to stop parents from later using their children to settle in the UK. Cameron also indicated that Britain would not accept refugee children who had already made it to Europe.
He told MPs: “We will go on listening to Save the Children, which has done excellent work. A number of other expert organisations warn about the dangers of taking children further from their parents. The overall point I would make is that those who have already arrived in Europe are at least safe. If we can help the ones in the refugee camps – the ones in Lebanon and Jordan – it will discourage more people from making the perilous journey.”
Gordon Brown has said in an article written for the Guardian that all countries accepting refugees should place a particular emphasis on helping children. The former prime minister writes: “Eglantyne Jebb, who started Save the Children to help child refugees in the wake of the first world war, said the only international language the world understands is the cry of a child. But from her own experience of visiting neglected orphans, the author JK Rowling feared that ‘no one is easier to silence than a child’. In the next few weeks we will find out whether optimism will win through and whether the voices of millions of children will finally be heard.”
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